Category Archives: Music

Creative Music Forms

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Now the difference with something like theory, you know, when you teach someone music theory all you’re doing is you’re just showing him this stuff. You’re saying, look this is a minor second and this is a minor third and it has this sound attached to it and this is a fifth and you work into things like the different types of chords and skills and all these other you know the higher-level Theory concepts. You would just be showing that stuff to this kid, stuff that they would have eventually figured out on their own. So you can kind of imagine that as you’re trying to develop your ability to create music you have these two paths that you can walk. You can go down the experimental path where you just try things and discover everything on your own or you go down what I’ll call the guided path where someone is there like me perhaps telling you that you know this sounds this way and this sounds like this and here’s this pattern and whatever. That’s what I’d call the guide approach. Now there are huge pitfalls and issues you run into either direction you take and we’ll start with the guided approach. One of the biggest problems and this is what I was saying earlier that you know some people learn theory and they wind up not being able to create music. That it’s very easy when someone is teaching you things to let what you’re being taught interfere with the step 2 part of writing music. Remember music is this two-step process. You have the idea generation part you’re trying to you identify things that you think are going to work and sound good and then you have the judgment part where you’re just listening to something and literally seeing if that sound lights up the neurons in your head.

Chandler AZ Performing ArtsWhen someone is they’re saying you know here’s your key these are the notes that fit in your key this note does not belong to your key it’s very difficult to not start developing this bias. You are playing something, you play a note and you think that that doesn’t work if it’s not in my key and you’re not actually listening to it and just seeing if you’re you know your brain is reacting to it. You’re actually letting this bias come in when you’re thinking it’s the wrong note and more often than not it’s not even a conscious process you’re not literally thinking this it’s just kind of leaked into your to your head somehow and that’s a very difficult thing to have to deal with. When you’re learning  the guided approach, and to make it worse, there’s plenty of teachers, and, I I’ve done this before, it’s a very easy thing to kind of slip up and do but plenty of teachers will present things as if there is this, here’s how you should do it. So, you shouldn’t do that.

So that’s the first major issue with what most people think of when they’re learning music theory. On the other hand that’s not very likely to happen if you’re taking the experimental approach. If you’re just playing things and trying to discover it for yourself you’re much less likely to develop this bias, like all these notes are the right notes or the wrong notes or whatever. Because you’re just kind of trying stuff and seeing how it sounds. Now the other a serious issue that can happen when you’re taking this guided path is that very often the things you’ll try you know the idea generation part gets limited to what you already have learned.  You know if you’re just a few months into learning this stuff and you’ve learned about major keys or whatever and you know you’re playing in the key of G major your way less likely to try notes that don’t fit in. You’re not likely to play a c-sharp or an F natural because it’s not part of your key and so your experimentation part gets very limited. Whereas, if you’re just experimenting and trying stuff you’re not really limiting yourself. You know in the same way so that can be a huge thing – and you have to realize that just because you don’t know what something is you know if you don’t know that F is part of the mixolydian mode and that it has these sounds attached to it you can do these things with it.

Just because you don’t know that yet doesn’t mean that you should prejudge that note and say that it doesn’t work well. I just realized that you know if you play this and you don’t understand it yet you simply haven’t learned the name for that or you haven’t learned whatever concept describes what you’re playing. But that should never cloud that the judgment part of what you’re doing. Those are, I think, of the two major issues you run into when you’re learning theory in the more traditional sense.

Now before you think well screw music theory I’m just going to do the experimental approach that sounds way better, there’s huge problems there as well. One of the biggest issues you run into with the experimental approach and I can think of the specific example. I remember this kid that had come in for lessons he had played piano for a long time and he was fantastic. He would just sit down and improvise and he would blow you away. Anyone would be impressed with this guy and I remember thinking like what am I going to teach this guy? I mean he’s great he does this better than I can.  I mean, what am I supposed to say to him? But if you listen to him after a while you start to realize that he would always playing in the same key. He really had about 10 or 15 minutes of material that he had kind of worked up and discovered and everything he did was just that stuff and like little variations. You realize he can’t really do much else besides that and then this was why he had come to get lessons. He wanted to get beyond this and he knew he was limited.  The reason was that he had evolved in this very natural way where he had just played stuff and tried it and try to see how it sounds and he you know would learn that. OK, you know this note sounds like this and this note sounds like that and he would put together these little chords and relationships and scales based on how this note sounds this way and this note sounds this way without even realizing it. He was thinking it was C minor, he was playing everything in c minor. He didn’t even know that. He would sit there and just go wild in this key and you say hey cool can you play that in f minor. He would say what’s an F minor? He did not yet didn’t understand because he’s learned in this very natural kind of way. But without realizing it, he learned the simplest way of identifying something and if he had had someone there saying no actually that this note sounds this way because it’s this far away from your root note and you know if you move your root note somewhere else then you know now this note is going to sound that way. He could have learned things in this more relational sense, he wouldn’t have gotten stuck like that and there’s all kinds of subtle ways that that issue will come up along that experimental path.

You know you learn things not necessarily in the best way because you really don’t know what the best way is. Your just discovering it and then another issue that that can happen is that very often you know there are certain things that are very hard to discover on your own, just experimental like, you know some particularly weird cord that really only works if it leads into another chord. You think like secondary dominants or that kind of thing, like unless you really have a sense of what to do with this weird sound it doesn’t work. It is very hard to just randomly discover a weird cord that doesn’t sound right and then randomly discovered that if you go to this other weird court it all kind of works. So that stuff can be really hard to discover on your own and you’ll see this happen a lot for a lot of different pop artists or groups. You know you can tell that they’ve evolved very naturally in their music and most of the songs that they write are pretty much all in the same key they pretty much use the same chords and they’re all they’re kind of stuck into this style. Maybe they might be fine with it, it is not necessarily bad but you can very easily see that that’s a limitation of the way they’ve learned music.

Okay so here’s I think what all this means. You will get to the practical part of this discussion thing I assume that if you’re reading this especially if you’re looking to further your music, you’re trying to be a better musician and I’m kind of simplifying this a little bit too or may be exaggerating. You know I’m saying that there’s these two paths but if you’re taking the experimental path there’s no way to be completely isolated.

Music Theory and Writing

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If you’ve spent much time around music or really anywhere that people talk about music you’ll notice pretty quickly that there’s a lot of criticism around the whole concept of music theory. People will say it’s a waste of time it’s too technical. It will hurt your creativity and that you’ll all just wind up following all these rules when you’re trying to create music. Now this is something I wanted to talk about for a long time and I think that there’s really two key issues or key arguments on that side of things.Playing Music in Arizona at ASU

One is that I’ve certainly seen this happen. There are plenty of people who learned their scales and chords and all this stuff and they really do have a hard time being creative. I remember when I was in college. I had this professor who was an amazing violinist, incredible performer and she had studied theory her whole life and taught theory classes and everything. I remember asking her, like hey what have you written or what kind of music do you write. She says oh no I don’t write music. I never had an ability and added I can’t do it and I remember thinking at the very least that’s interesting. But worst case it really worried me. I mean I’m here at school under the impression that learning all about music is going to make me a better musician. But, if it didn’t work for her at least in the creating music sense then why am I even here and then the second big issue is that there are certainly tons of people out there. Musicians who have never studied theory certainly, not formally, and they’re fantastic musicians.

They make some of the world’s best music. So how do you explain that? So I want to give you my insights on this stuff and hopefully help you think about the way you approach music. Whatever your particular thought process might be and I think the place to start is by thinking about how a four-year-old approaches writing music. If you ever get a chance to watch a four-year-old do anything you can learn a lot because they have no prior experience or anything. You’re going to approach things in the most natural way possible. I mean they just gained consciousness, they have nothing to go on.
So, here’s how a four-year-old will write music and I’ve seen it many times. I used to teach lots of kids but they will go to the piano or whatever instrument there on and they’ll just choose a note. So they just pick one and think sounds good. They pick that one, they’ll play it and listen to it and they’ll decide if they like it or not. If they don’t though, they try a different one and keep going until eventually they find a note that they do like and that’s the first note in their song. Then they’ll move on to the second note and they’ll repeat the same process and they play random things until they find a note that they like and now they have two notes in the song and they just keep doing that until they’ve strung together this little melody.

Now I can tell you first hand sometimes this works really well. I have seen kids write stuff where I’m like, dang kid kind of wish I’d thought of that. It can work really well in that’s the essential process of writing music and it really the essential process of creating any kind of art. There’s two steps. There’s the idea generation part just thinking up of something that you want to try and then the judgment part where you listen to that thing and you decide if that that works or not. Now in the kids scenario a kid is really good their judgment part because if you think about what you’re really doing, all you’re doing is you’re exposing your brain to something you’re listening to. A sound and you’re trying to see if you’re human mind responds to it in a way that’s positive or not. You know there are the neurons in your head lighting up and if you had an fMRI machine you could actually see Continue reading


This is a story about a young man’s first visit to the Telluride bluegrass music festival in Colorado during the 1980s. Telluride is in the southwestern mountains of Colorado in San Miguel county. It sits at the end of a canyon with steep mountains all around with a magnificent waterfall in the north end of the canyon.  It is famous for a fantastic ski area which people enjoy during the snowy winter months with great Rocky Mountain powder and the dryer snow at that higher elevation. It is also known for it’s music festivals such as the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and the Telluride Jazz Festival.

His Story begins in Albuquerque New Mexico, approximately 5 hours south of Telluride. He and his friends planned a three-day trip to enjoy the Bluegrass Festival and listen to some extraordinary progressive, professional bluegrass musicians.  High on the list of must-see bands was the New Grass Revival.  This band did not disappoint any way, shape or form. These seasoned professionals with their acoustic instruments blew the doors off the venue despite the fact no doors exist in the exquisite outdoor music performance beauty.

The small group of four set out late Thursday afternoon from Albuquerque in a small 4-cylinder station wagon. With tents and cooking equipment in tow, their plan was to camp in one of the many designated camping areas for patrons of this wonderful Music Festival.  They found a great place to camp within walking distance of all of the different events in the area. Telluride is not a large town so most everything is in biking or walking distance. Of course, there was quite a lot of drinking going on with this younger group of individuals who did not know each other all that well.

The group eventually went their separate ways and on to their own businesses and lives. One became very successful with his towing company in Arizona, Chandler Towing. Others went on to do nice things for people in need in the hospice industry. They were all great people and this memory will last a lifetime.

It was not long before they got separated from one another as they enjoyed the various things that happen at an event like this. Remember that Telluride is about 5 hours travel on freeways from Albuquerque. So it’s good two hundred and fifty miles or so away. Unfortunately for one of the young members of this group he was unable stay connected with the group when it came time to leave on Sunday afternoon. So when he did make it back to where the camp was they were no longer there. This was in the days long before cell phones even existed so the reality was he is now stranded in Telluride Colorado with no transportation back to Albuquerque.telluride-music-and-trees-640

So what was he to do?  He thought about hitchhiking back to Albuquerque but the racial tensions in the area between tourists and some locals made him think it was not such a great idea.  So, he was fortunate enough to have a few dollars left in his pocket that he had not spent on beer and other merriment’s that were abundantly available.  With the remaining coin in his pocket he decided to call family members in Albuquerque and request some help.  Fortunately for him he was able to reach his mother who was kind enough to pay for a plane ticket from the Telluride airport back to the Albuquerque Airport. Now the problem for him was how to get to the Telluride airport because it was not in walking distance. At that time he realized he had no choice but to hitchhike.

Now please picture this, he had not showered in at least 36 to 48 hours.  So, he was not only ripe he just plain stunk like a skunk.  But he started walking for the airport anyway with his thumb extended and hoping and praying that someone would pick him up before his airplane left because there are not that many flights in and out of Telluride Colorado to Albuquerque, or anywhere for that matter. If he missed this flight it was days before another was available. Well, fortunate for him a group of older residents who were driving to the airport to drop off some friends took pity upon the poor soul walking down the street with his thumb out and picked him up and delivered him to the airport. I still feel sorry for them since they had to endure his stink for the short ride.

So for this young man he was really fortunate to arrive before his plane departed even though he stunk to high heaven. He made his way to the airport bathroom facilities and washed up as best he could with the limited resources a public restroom in an airport has to offer. But he was able to at least tone down the stench surrounding his unscrupulous activities for the last few days. He was able to get on the flight and he was very fortunate in that his apartment was actually within walking distance of the Albuquerque Airport. Not only that, he had managed to not lose his keys during that eventful 3 days and he was able to get home in one piece and finally take that needed shower.

Decades have past but the impact of those great musicians remain to this day for him. They helped to open his eyes to the beauty of acoustic instruments and helped to form a lifelong love for music.